Owen Benson


Populism’s only certainty is uncertainty: the causes and consequence of populism on a democratic society


When the class was presented with the enterprise story project, I was initially quite anxious about the process. I was unsure of my own capabilities and competence in the field of journalistic work. This would, after all, be my first real story for publication. I had written a few opinion pieces for my high school’s magazine “The Royal Banner,” however, these pieces looked vastly different than what was expected from this project.

So, I wracked my brain trying to work out a topic that was not only a pertinent story, but something that I was passionate about as well. My initial thought was to write about the comic book culture in Salt Lake City. I am a massive comic book fan. Ever since I was a kid I consumed comics with gusto. I’m drawn to them in a way only a few things in this life can hold a flame to. The mixture of visual and written storytelling in tandem with archetypal heroes who could be role models was exceptional for a developing mind.

However, I believed there was a more important story to be told in our modern world. The age of comic bookstores, with their rows of yellowing ink-ladened comics, is coming to an all too swift end. Sadly. Yet, there is something on the rise in America, something far more sinister than comic book villains.

The rapid rise of extremist rhetoric — it is being used by politicians and the public alike. I am a student of history; there is nothing more fascinating to me than the rise and fall of societies, cultures, and government. Examining how and why these events occur, and how then to extrapolate that information to other situations to learn from the past is a passion of mine.

The proliferation of this rhetoric is a concerning historical trend. Not only is it concerning when one looks to the past, but even more so when one looks at the present. Extremist leaders are gaining power in every corner of the globe. The rise of these politicians is concerning for anyone with a cosmopolitan bent — like myself. I fear with the rise of extremism our global society will once again slip into sectarian, ethnic, and nationalistic disputes. I dread this outcome.

The events that transpired on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021, shattered my perception that America was still the moral and political arbiter of the world. I believe as the sole global superpower it ought to be our duty to champion the ideals that we claim to hold so dear; the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We did not live up to these ideals that fateful day, but our war is not lost. The battles are only just beginning.

I needed to know more about the causes and consequences of extremist rhetoric on a democratic society, like our own. I knew this was an important topic, one that deserved justice in its telling. That doesn’t mean that I thought I should be the one telling it, however. To gain that personal confidence, I would have to look outside myself.

My first stop was my parents, Leigh and Joel Benson. They are not only my biggest cheerleaders, but they are also my mentors, my friends, my counsels, and my bedrock. They truly urge me to be the best version of myself possible. Even when I doubt myself, they never do. Parents are unique in that way. After I pitched them my idea, they only had one response, “You got this!”

With a smidgen of extra confidence, I decided to head on toward my second station. Next stop, Professor Mangun. I went into the conversation with her hesitant about my pitch, starting with my comic book idea in case I was getting too outlandish with my proposal on extremism. This was not the case. My pitch on extremism made Mangun’s eyes light up, a grin crept across her face until it spanned from ear to ear.

“You’ve got this, Owen,” Mangun said with determination and excitement wrapped into one. I may not have been confident enough on my own, but with the support of those close to me I was able to manifest my goals into reality. Mangun assured my that not only was I competent enough to grapple with such a topic, I would be doing a disservice to myself to believe otherwise. I was ready to tackle extremism, or so I thought.

I began my crash course in extremism in the same place that incubates this rhetoric, on the dark web. Through the use of Tor and a VPN, I scoured the web for the chatrooms and forums where this form of rhetoric is king. I never appreciated the vile vitriol that existed on the internet until my brief trip down the rabbit hole. Yet a few themes kept rearing their ugly heads: the belief of disenfranchisement by the elites, fears and anxiety about our political and societal institutions, and how uncertain our world is and subsequently how that makes people fear the future.

This was all crucial information, but it didn’t mean much to me at the time, I had no idea what to do with this information. With Mangun’s help I was able to whittle down my scope and begin looking for my sources. I began by searching for professors in the Salt Lake Valley who are experts in extremist rhetoric. That is when I found Dr. Ethan Busby at Brigham Young University, my first source.

Busby specializes in political psychology. He also wants to understand why people are attracted to this inflammatory rhetoric. What about it is so appealing to the average citizen? I conducted an interview with Busby that lasted a little more than an hour. It was during this interview that my story would begin crystalizing.

Busby is part of a global research network called Team Populism. Team Populism connects scholars from across the world to share their research with each other and the public in pursuits of evaluating, educating, and elevating the collective knowledge on populism. It is through my connection with Busby that I was able to find my second source.

Busby recommended that I reach out to Dr. Kirk Hawkins, who is also a professor at BYU and a director of Team Populism. Busby said he enjoyed our conversation and would recommend me to any of his colleagues for an interview. I was flabbergasted. This was my first real interview and yet I conducted it well enough to receive a seal of approval the first go-around. My hopes were climbing.

I reached out to Hawkins via email to see if he would be interested in an interview. He responded the very same day. He was exuberant that such a young person was exploring these topics and wanted to provide any help and information he could in assisting me to develop my story. We scheduled an interview, and much like my interview with Busby, we talked for about an hour.

Hawkins specializes in the larger systems that populism affects. He studies what happens to governments and power when populist leaders infiltrate them. Hawkins was impressed by my level of geopolitical knowledge, and my understanding of the inner workings of a political movement. I attribute this to my passion for history, but also my interest in the Middle East, where it is crucial for one to grasp these connections to see the web that develops between ideas and movements.

Partly due to this — but also due to their extensive knowledge and teaching experience — I received a massive amount of information from these two sources. I was losing sight of my focus. I was beginning to think of my topic as a senior’s thesis rather than a single news story, I needed to change something.

My first change was switching my topic from extremist rhetoric to specifically populist rhetoric. This may not seem like a big difference, but extremist rhetoric is a massive topic and I needed to look at a much smaller slice. My first two sources are experts in populist rhetoric, so I already had the information I needed to make this switch. It also became acutely apparent to me that my questions on extremism were really questions on populism. This may be due to populist rhetoric being the most common form of extremist rhetoric in the United States and the Western world more broadly.

It is at this point that I hit another major hurdle. I ran out of professors of populist rhetoric in the Salt Lake Valley after interviewing Busby and Hawkins. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was unsure who I would reach out to for my third and final interview. I knew I wanted a source from the Salt Lake Valley to keep the story relevant to the publisher and the reader that I envisioned being from this region for this specific project. I wanted a source that would add a completely different frame of mind to the story.

What is a democratic society other than a system of laws and mutual agreement? Not much in fact. To understand the effects and consequences of populism on a democratic society I needed to understand that system of laws and mutual agreement. I needed a lawyer, an expert in law. Not just any law, but the law that concerns the very sites that I began this process with in the first place — media law.

RonNell Anderson Jones is a law professor at the University of Utah. She ended up being my final source. I found her through the S. J. Quinney College of Law website by searching for professors who specialize in media law. Jones was the perfect source; she specializes in social media law.

I found it fascinating that all three of my sources came to the same conclusion just by different methods, viewpoints, and modalities. Uncertainty is high in the United States, this leads to people seeking ways to amend this uncertainty. Populism offers that solution, through a veil of perceived certainty. The way to combat this rise is not necessarily through legal measures, or altering our current system of governance, or condemning individuals for having concerns about their government’s decisions, but by educating the individual.

Click. The focus of my story snapped into place, I knew the tone that I would have to convey to tell this story, I knew what my outcome had to be, I knew what my story had to be. I now had a blank map with two points on it, I knew where I was and where I wanted to be. I had the tools to fill in this map through the information I gained from my sources and the knowledge I gleaned through research. I just had to begin drawing.

It still had yet to dawn on me that my map was massive. I had mountains of information. I truly could have written a research paper on the topic, but that was not my intention. I needed a news story. I needed to tie all my information back to the reader. I wanted my piece to serve as part of the education required to combat this rise of populism. How was I to do this?

My first attempt was a disaster. It was too bloated, and the message got lost in the myriad of details. I hated this outcome; the message was a huge part of my intention and to muddle it was a disservice to the topic and its gravity. So, I reached back out to my support network.

After a crucial conversation with my parents, I was able to winnow out my focus even further. Through the lens of uncertainty, I could show how populism affects us all. I could ground the cognitively complex topic of susceptibility to populist rhetoric to one maxim, one that everyone can relate to — uncertainty in one’s life.

Then came my conversation with Professor Mangun. I pitched the idea of viewing populism through the lens of uncertainty. She loved it, it grounded an esoteric topic to the everyday citizen, it provided the pathway for anyone experiencing uncertainty to question if they were becoming more extreme or populist with their rhetoric. It showed the consequences of this line of thinking and the slippery slope that all of us must actively be aware of and earnestly stray from.

This reinvigorated my spirit for the project. I had felt so bogged down by the topic, anxious that I couldn’t say everything that I wanted or needed to in a single story. But, like any diamond, an intense amount of pressure is required to transform something raw and ugly into something beautiful and dazzling. It was time to start cutting my diamond — it now needed to sparkle.

To make my story connected to the reader I would have to ground my ideas into real-world events. I couldn’t just talk about them in abstracts, nor would it make sense to evaluate another country’s descent into populism. I needed to ground my story firmly in America, for an American audience, so why not use the event that opened my eyes to the dangers of this rhetoric in our own nation. The riots on Capitol Hill.

I grounded my story in real politicians, from both sides of the political spectrum, because populism isn’t just a trend for one political party. I wanted to show that we are all in this struggle together. I didn’t want to be the kind of journalist who sits in their ivory tower and spouts long prose just to shame or demonize a group of people for not thinking the same way as themselves. In fact, that’s part of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place.

I knew I couldn’t eliminate bias from my story, since I still wanted to have a message, a moral to my story. But I knew if I could refrain from exposing that bias until the end the reader would be more likely to read the entire story and take my words into consideration. I studied other articles published on populism in major newspapers, most of them start out with a strong bent against populism. Shaming it from the start, shaming the people who fall victim to its ideas, and shaming the country for allowing this to happen.

I knew I couldn’t write an article like this. It’s simply not how I viewed the subject anymore. I understood that populism is an ideology supposedly of and for the people, the fact that it is attractive to an average citizen is the point of populism. It was vital to show that falling victim to populism is easy.

Yet one should be wary of populism not because it is inherently bad, but because it places too much power in the hands of a few in addition to turning citizens of a collective society against each other for perceived slights. The employment of populist rhetoric is capitalized upon by clever political actors in pursuit of power through public opinion. If I could show that citizens are the victims of such rhetoric and the consolidation of power, and not benefactors of finally being heard, then I have succeeded.

My map was gaining details, the path between A and B seemed clearer than it ever had previously. My diamond was beginning to shine, but it still wasn’t that perfect princess cut that I envisioned. I scrapped my first draft, completely. I appreciated the lessons I learned through the process of writing and evaluating it, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.

So, I began all over from scratch. I opened an entirely new document, staring at the blinking black bar on the stark white page. I was blank. How was I going to possibly achieve the goals I had set out for myself? With reassurance from my support network, of course.

“Just close your eyes, envision your finished piece, take a deep breath, and let the writing flow,” my mom said to me during the phone call. “You know how to write, Owen, you know your topic inside and out. Believe in yourself enough to know your voice matters, breathe and let that strong voice flow through you. It’s just like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and before you know it, you’ll reach heights you never knew were possible.”

I wrote. I wrote like the wind. My fingers were doing the thinking. Of course, I knew the topic, I was ensconced in it. I thought about it while skiing, I thought about it while lying in bed, I thought about it while playing video games. I had been obsessed with my topic, and I had let my obsession and pursuit of perfection cloud my vision.

My vision had crystallized, I let the words and ideas flow from my fingers like a river that might never stop. I was putting one foot in front of the other. Before I knew it my piece was sitting before me, finished, from lead to kicker in one run-through. I leaned back in my chair and chuckled to myself, “So that’s where this map has been leading me, huh?”

My map was finished, I had plotted my course and allowed myself the grace to traverse it with care. I take pride in my work, I compete against myself constantly, always striving to surpass myself and reach new heights. This project was one of those new heights. I didn’t enter this class thinking I could turn out a piece of work like my enterprise story, but I proved myself wrong. Which is always a welcome surprise. I continued to work on my piece, refining it, tweaking it. Trying to push it up the ladder of excellence. I still have much to learn about journalism, and populism for that matter, yet this excites me instead of discouraging me. I had crafted my princess diamond, and it sparkled more than I could’ve hoped when the lump of carbon first sat before me.


I am a full-time student at the University of Utah. I am currently double-majoring — in journalism through the Department of Communication and in Middle Eastern Studies with an Arabic emphasis through the Department of World Languages and Cultures. I grew up inculcated in the stories from every nook and cranny of our vast globe, devouring the experiences and absorbing the crucial nutrients of empathy, humility, and the unwavering strength and majesty of the human struggle. Thus, this is why I tirelessly toil to continue weaving this collective chronicle of existence.

I strive toward giving voice to the voiceless. In an increasingly globalized society I believe now more than ever it is critical we hear voices from every corner of our globe. I aspire to report on the stories that shape our geopolitical landscape. I believe the most crucial part of shaping public opinion is the knowledge that is provided through human stories. To work toward a more perfect Free World our society must have as much empathy for our neighbors as we do for those we’ve never met. To give voice, power, and recognition to these experiences is the first step toward a more perfect world.

The duty of a journalist ought to be to hold those in power accountable. I am fascinated by revolutions, coup d’etats, protests, and both intra and international conflicts. The relationship between the people and those in power will always be a tenuous line. I believe it is journalists who can act as mediators between these parties. If not mediators, then informants for the betterment of our globalized society. Through human stories, journalists have the opportunity to open hearts and minds to the realities of our world.

“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell